Published in The Friday Times on December 7th 2012
Amidst all the growing intolerance in Pakistan, culture has been one of the first to suffer. But it is also true that in dark times our souls seek to be stirred and our spirits lifted, often leading to impassioned works of art.
It was on the invitation of the Faiz Foundation and on behalf of Salima and Moneeza Hashmi, that actor Naseeruddin Shah, his wife Ratna Pathak and daughter Heeba Shah came to Lahore from Bombay, representing Motley Theater Group, and performed in Lahore on the first day of a cold December. The Alhamra hall roared with welcoming applause for the Shahs, but it was the thunderous clapping at the end of the performance that spoke of how starved Lahore was for quality craft, excellence in high culture and plain old entertainment.
Naseeruddin Shah’s fame as an actor precedes him in the Subcontinent. His Urdu diction and pronunciation make him among the very few in Bollywood who can claim to do justice to an adabi role. From his recitation of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s “Yey Dagh Dagh Ujala…” to his role as poet Mirza Ghalib in Gulzar’s famous TV serial, he has always performed by being one with his character.
Nothing can however prepare one for the combination of Nasseruddin Shah’s presence and Ismat Chughtai’s fierce writings and commentary on the dying Muslim nobility in 20th century India.
The Shah family’s performance was in fact a set of readings of three of Chughtai’s short stories and not a conventional three-act play. Before the performance, Mr. Shah explained his conviction: Ismat Chughtai was known only by the headlines she had made with her story ‘Lihaaf’ and the “obscenity” charge it drew in 1940s India. (She won the court case.) Shah said most people thought Ismat Chughtai was a man because they believed no woman could be this bold. She, however, was more than that and the audience now had to decide whether her writings were obscene or artistic.
The first story, ‘Chui Mui’, was enacted by Naseer’s daughter Heeba Shah. A pregnant woman giving birth in a train compartment – this in itself is recounted with Shakespearean wit, but juxtaposed with the story of Bhabhijan whose only ambition in life was to become pregnant, the story reveals a profound depth. Chughtai is so unabashed in showing the ironies of bourgeois life, in the roles women take up and those that societies impose on them.
In the second story, ‘Gori Bi and Kaley Mian’, Ratna Pathak gave a deliciously underhanded commentary on the subcontinent’s ancient obsession with women’s beauty and complexions, all while sitting on an old maid’s chair, looking at what seemed like a photo album. A fair maiden was supposed to have her veil lifted on her wedding night while her dark husband, teased and insulted for being dark, marked his pride by insisting that she lift it herself. Kneaded in this dough was so much bitterness and false “Mughal Bacha” pride that it squandered a lifetime of love, or what could have been love. There was hardly a taboo topic this seemingly benign story didn’t touch.
In ‘Gharwali’, Naseeruddin Shah acted himself and played the role of Mirza, a devoted frequenter of both brothel and mosque: living the life that George Orwell called doublespeak with absolutely no mental contradictions. In stark contrast to him is Laajo, a maidservant of “loose” morals and high spirit: a canny survivor with the capacity to share both her body and attention with generosity. She is transparent but uncouth, drop dead gorgeous but fundamentally unfaithful and, above all, free.
All three plays defined women as more than just a possession, more than just the “second sex”.
What remains a tragedy is that despite the fact that India has managed to keep alive its Urdu literature and culture though its film and theater, Pakistan has failed miserably. There is no one here like Naseeruddin Shah to keep the legacy of Faiz, Manto and Chughtai alive through the avenues of theater and film.